PSU intern helps city prep for ‘The Big One’

In the Pacific Northwest, “The Big One” isn’t a question of if, only when. When the inevitable Cascadia Subduction earthquake stops shaking, buildings across the Portland metro region will have to be evaluated. But what type of buildings will be prioritized? Who is qualified to inspect them? Which buildings are at the top of the list?

Lexi Phipps, a Portland State undergrad majoring in architecture, has been helping to answer those questions as part of her internship with the city’s Bureau of Development Services. 

“It’s a really cool feeling because I’m helping move along a project that is going to impact our entire city,” she said. “I’m researching what critical infrastructure is, how that’s going to apply to particular buildings here in Portland, how we’re going to prioritize who and where to go first.”

The Climate and Community Resilience Internship Program, a collaboration between PSU’s Institute for Sustainable Solutions and the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP), provides minoritized students in STEM fields like Lexi with hands-on training and mentoring through 9-month paid internships. Lexi is returning to the program for a second year. In 2021, she and 11 other students were placed in climate and resiliency internships across Portland. This year’s cohort of 16 students began in September with placements in city bureaus, federal agencies, soil and water conservation districts and other nonprofits. 

Lexi says she jumped at the opportunity to apply. Through the pandemic, she had been working as a certified nursing assistant — and was feeling burnt out. 

“I wanted a job or role that was actually within the field I was pursuing because there was a pretty big gap between what I was doing for work and what I was pursuing for school,” she said. “At the time, I was really interested in architecture and where it intersects with resilience and climate planning. This internship checked all the boxes of what I wanted to pursue and what interested me.”

She spent the better part of last year as the project researcher, looking into damage assessment plans and building permitting policies for different states and counties. She also helped facilitate meetings for building officials and other partners in the five-county region. This year, she’ll continue to be the go-to researcher while also taking on more of a project manager role.

Lexi says the internship has helped her grow both professionally and personally and credits the mentorship of PSU’s program advisor and her internship supervisor. She has learned new skills, become more confident in herself, networked and gotten a taste of what it would be like to pursue a career in public service.

It’s helped her discover a new career path, too. When she arrived at PSU in 2020, Lexi planned to go the route of becoming a licensed architect but now has her sights set on a master’s — either in urban planning or in critical infrastructure planning and emergency management. 

“It’ll focus on being an emergency manager for things like hospitals and IT communications — all the infrastructure that’s critical for society to function,” she said. “I had no idea that was a thing until I started this internship. … it has changed the trajectory of my career and set me up for success post-graduation.”

Learn more about LSAMP and the mentorship, activities, events, and opportunities for students at PSU or from our local community colleges.

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